Pitch for story about state and history of dining in passenger trains across America — and contributions of black chefs.

Is America’s Romantic Train Dining Tradition Going Off the Rails? 
Can Amtrak Keep Dining Cars a-Cookin’ and Keep Millennial Passengers Happy? 
Are Amtrak’s recent culinary changes the scaled-down future of a dining tradition dating to the earliest days of American railroads? Is dining on the rails today as romantic as our memories of Hollywood movies and yesteryear? As view-centric tourist restaurants go, does Amtrak’s dining-car cooking match sometimes-stunning scenery viewed from dining cars? Is Amtrak’s No. 1-selling $25 steak as good as Sizzler’s?

By Ed Murrieta

Despite recent headlines blaming Millennials for derailing a nostalgic dining tradition that dates to the earliest days of railroads and the country itself, dining while traveling on American passenger trains is still a full-service, sit-down experience on West Coast, Southwest, South and Midwest Amtrak lines — mostly, if not exactly, how Baby Boomers and the Greatest Generation recalled rail dining after rolling their eyes at Millennials when Amtrak announced this month it would cease full-service sit-down dining on five East Coast lines because younger passengers prefer dining with cell phones over people.

Amtrak’s overnight East Coast trains will stop cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner in on-board kitchens atop dining cars. Pre-packaged heat-and-serve entrees like braised beef, vegan noodles, chicken fettuccine, creole shrimp and andouille sausage, plus continental breakfast, will replace cooked-to-order omelets, steaks, burgers, crab cakes and roasted chicken that were previously served on china at cloth-covered tables. East Coast passengers may eat plastic-packaged meals in their coach seats, business seats, sleeper cars or re-designed dining cars.

 

The bulk of my reporting will be done on one round-trip between Sacramento and Los Angeles.

  • Menu on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight (Seattle-Los Angeles) is identical to menus on six other Amtrak trains serving the West Coast, Southwest, South and Midwest.
  • Additional reporting will be done at the California State Railroad Museum, which has mid-20th century kitchen and dining cars on display.

My sources include:

  • A rail historian and author of books on the history of rail dining.
  • Amtrak’s executive chef.
  • A member of Amtrak’s Culinary Advisory Team
  • Labor union leader.
  • California State Railroad Museum library archives.
  • Willie Brown, whose father was a Pullman porter aboard trains.